In 1928, Warner Bros. released the first film in sound, “The Jazz Singer.” Since then, sound has been a necessity for all movies. At the time, a lot of people in the industry thought sound was a gimmick and took the art out of movies.
In Michel Hazanavicius’ new silent film, “The Artist,” he makes the claim that, indeed, both forms must be embraced and never forgotten.
Not everyone likes change
The movie revolves around a movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who at the height of his popularity is confronted by the introduction of sound. Like real-life movie star of that age, John Gilbert, his career then takes a turn for the worst after saying to his manager, “If this is the future, you can keep it.”
But one person who is not struggling is up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who is established early on as a fan of Valentin. He even gives the actress her first role after his manager wished to throw her off the set.
He is old-fashioned, charming and handsome, just like movie stars then, whereas she is energetic, young and as new as the advent of sound in films.
Needless to say, studios want out with the old, in with the new. Her career skyrockets, and he must use all his money to make a movie that ends up flopping. This is cinema history caught on camera.
Hitting rock bottom
From here on out, we see George struggling to make ends meet. No one wants to see him anymore, so he hides out, drinking in his apartment, while his faithful companion (Jack Russell Terrier, Uggie) stays by his side. We are meant to sympathize with George as he goes through this ordeal, and we do.
He is reminiscent of the old Hollywood, which we are watching crumble before our eyes. There are moments of humor, with the help of a scene-stealing Uggie, and a remarkable performance from Dujardin, who is known for comedy in his native France.
But in the end, we cannot help but feel for this man who is so prideful and dedicated to his beliefs about what art is. You could almost make the claim that Hazanavicius makes that point that old is best. But that would be simple-minded.
Peppy plays just as big a role as Valentin. Where he is old Hollywood, she is new, and knows it. We get shots of her at movie premieres, living it up. But then we get shots of her looking upon George in the state he is in and of her feeling such remorse because she feels she caused it all. And maybe she has.
But in the end, when George has hit bottom and hates the man he sees in the mirror, she comes in to save his life (literally) and show that the world still loves him and he just has to show them.
Silence hits right notes
It’s hard to describe the power of this movie, and the message it has at its core. But like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” it makes the point that although we will always live in the future and love those who embrace it, we must never forget where that all comes from. The best collaborations embody the old and the new to create something beautiful.
The movie is passionate and, yes, silent, but it’s one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had with a movie from 2011. It’s energetic, funny, nostalgic and has great performances all around, with a score that makes the film twice as absorbing as it already is.
But as I said, this movie has something to say that we must all hear. No matter how much we get caught up with the future and what’s new, we must never forget how it all came to be. There is a reason watching old movies or listening to old music is so incredible: It’s because we know they are the reason we are where we are now.